Have you joined the new religion? I don’t mean the online worship, streaming services, virtual choirs and orchestras and WhatsApp contact groups. I expect many of you have done that and a good thing too. This is the old religion, done anew. It’s all very creative and exciting (to some), and it remains to be seen what the full impact of it will be. Apparently, according to one survey, a quarter of the nation of turning to online church services of some kind. This is very interesting news, even if it is only half-true.
But there is also a new form of ‘church’ that has arisen, involving a secular ritual. At 8pm every Thursday millions of folk go onto the street to applaud not only nurses and doctors but all NHS staff and those who have been keeping the show on the road and caring for our health and wellbeing. Many of these people are taking huge risks and serving us sacrificially. You will know of the sad and heart-breaking stories of those dying in the line of duty, young and old. So, galvanized by a lady from Holland who has got our country clapping, we boldly go beyond our bunkers to offer praise and thanksgiving to these marvellous people. All this applauding is both audible and laudable.
It is, actually, quite close to the concept of worship – weorþscipe - as the Old English called it, which means to offer honour to a worthy object or person. There is a real sense in which we are now worshipping the NHS. Our doctors and nurses are the priests and deacons of physical ministry in a world that is not so much neglecting the spiritual as parking it in virtual space. The Coronavirus pandemic is highlighting the duality of body and mind, separating the two, but also, to some extent helping us recognise the interconnection of the two. This is good. So we worship God online and each other in the street. Church rituals have been replaced by pray-as-you-go downloads, and positive thinking about and audible and laudable applause for those who serve and save us has become a weekly ritual.
The logo of this new worship is the rainbow, which has taken on a lovely modern hue these days. For most of us, the rainbow motif has its origins in the Biblical Flood story, found in today’s reading. Even those who do not comprehend its cultural heritage or original meaning still recognise the rainbow as a sign of hope today. It has become a symbol of thanks for the sterling work of the NHS, and many have reported seeing rainbows in the sky as they venture out on Thursday evenings to applaud key workers and NHS staff. (See BBC News website). This is the new going to church - standing in street, garden or balcony, or leaning out of the windows of our own arks, clapping. It is a new ritual with new unity, new purpose. It is built on a blend of appreciation and fear. These are archetypal religious motivations that when combined direct our hopes, fears and prayers skywards, where the bow after rain sends its beams of hope upon us.
One wonders whether it is deliberate or coincidental that the rainbow symbol, beloved and copied by children has become associated with all of this. On a simple level the rainbow symbolises hope. The original story makes this clear: it is one of the best bits of the Old Testament.
Adopt the rainbow as we may, we must also learn patience from the Ark story, and from Noah himself we gain insights into what family life on the ark might have been like. For as in any family, there are troubled moments, as revealed in Noah’s case by the strange story of him making wine, becoming drunk and being embarrassed by Canaan, whom he consequently curses. Noah was a righteous man in the eyes of God, but he was not perfect.
It is not easy to be perfect in lockdown, and there are tensions of various kinds that arise. There are isolation-specific difficulties; family lockdown tensions, and normal life issues that can be exaggerated simply by being in lockdown. Most of us thrive on a blend of social interaction, company, conversation, solitude and ‘downtime’. Alongside a ‘balanced diet’, we also need balanced interaction with others. Like many of the creatures on the ark, we are social animals, and in one of the Creation narratives God does not think it good for mankind to be alone, and so creates not only animals but another human being for company and family procreation (Genesis 2:18). Family life is part of the order of Creation, and so it is no wonder that isolation can cause emotional, psychological and even physical stress when it is imposed. There are those who choose solitude (which is not quite the same as loneliness), or lived as hermits or anchorites (Antony of Egypt and Julian of Norwich, for example), and we know from our own acquaintances that some people are happier with their own company than others. Yet isolation can be an ordeal, while for others, enforced company can be.
For some this makes the current lockdown an excruciating ordeal of claustrophobia, even danger. For when one person cannot cope with the situation, or has already present tendencies exaggerated by close and continual proximity to other family members, it can lead to agitation, short-temperedness, cruelty, violence; causing physical and mental suffering. We have a sense of the immediate threat of the virus, but its virulence expresses itself violently in some domestic contexts, financially and physically. The unseen enemy is doing unseen harm. For some the tensions and insecurities are knife-edged, and the stresses therefore sharp and painful. Bankruptcy, unemployment, loss of status, purpose or security accompany the bereavement that so many are forced to face. The range of family experience in lockdown spans from minor irritations and frustrated outburst to criminal domestic violence. To be imprisoned in lockdown with someone whom one cannot trust; of whom one is afraid; or from whom one is in palpable danger is unbearably stressful. This requires vigilance and prayer from us all.
But I am reminded of a more modern rainbow, etched into the canvas of the great novel of that name by D H Lawrence. Controversial as the book became after its publication in 1915, The Rainbow is an all-encompassing take on family relationships. The novel tells the story of three generations of the Brangwen family, and as we travel the wide arc of their family history, we encounter a profound exposition of passion and power amidst the familiar social roles of husbands, wives, children, and parents.
We meet Ursula Brangwen, who is probably the central character and whose ongoing exploits are continued with that of her sister Gudrun in the sequel, Women in Love. She sees “in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.” It is to be the optimistic dawn of a new modernist age, in which the idea of truth is to be recast. The First World War – the war of machines - had begun, but it is the ancient, religious, Biblical, hopeful symbol of the rainbow that Lawrence uses to span the arches of his magisterial literature. And for Lawrence the archetypal themes of flood and covenant are transformed into an ebb and flow of passion ameliorated by power, and as the book concludes the catalogue of trials and tribulations of young lives confused and conflicted by passion, they are given a hopeful future in the rainbow which recolours and brightens life.
Whether it is Lawrence’s modernist metaphorical rainbows, or the children’s drawings we see in front windows, we are so much reminded of the power and promise of the rainbow in this our current, challenging age. The rainbow is the badge of the modern cult of clapping for key workers. It is only two weeks since we were reminded of the flood, and now this week we reach the end of the story, the happy ending as it were. But we have been reminded that the flood did not last a mere 40 days and nights, but 150, and that it was 11 months before Noah and his family were able to leave the ark.
Back in March when the Lockdown was imminent, we launched the ASK Force. You might remember that ASK stands for Action, Supplication and Kindness. These are the three things that can carry us, and be carried by us at this time. We can act for others, not necessarily outside our home (not everyone can distribute food and be the ‘heroes’ we applaud), but we can ‘act’ at home, with kindness. The way we act affects how others live, and we can all do our bit. Acts of kindness are simple, cheap and healthy. Kindness, like a smile, is free, but hugely valuable. It might require some effort sometimes. So be it. Supplication (prayer) also requires some effort. Yet alongside kindness it is vital, for prayer is action, and all action needs to be accompanied by supplication, for then it can be kind in a distinctively Christian way.
The 2007 film, Evan Almighty is a contemporary recasting of the story of Noah’s Ark, set in the USA. One of its recurring themes is that the world can be changed through Acts of Random Kindness: ARK, for short. Now the ‘rain’ of the virus has stopped pouring down upon us so relentlessly, we still have to gingerly navigate the uncharted waters which we hope will lead us out of lockdown. Let us continue to be an ASK force, offering action, supplication and kindness in all sorts of both random and targeted ways, praying always for those for whom the waters are stormy and lockdown a terrible ordeal. Also, of course, to continue to offer praise and thanksgiving for, and to those who keep the show on the road and the nation healthy. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 17/05/2020